By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 21 May 2011)
In the past it was assumed that those with autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs) couldn’t experience empathy because they lacked a theory of mind; in other words, they couldn’t understand what others thought of felt, so there was nothing to trigger empathy.
Those with ASDs may be lacking in cognitive empathy (predicting how people will behave in response to their emotions, and understanding why they react in the ways they do). However, there is plenty of evidence that they actually suffer from a surplus of emotional empathy (feeling the emotions of others) rather than a deficit.
Evidence That People with Autistic Spectrum Disorders Experience Empathy
According to Smith (2009), findings from numerous studies have shown that not only do those with autistic spectrum disorders experience empathy, but they actually experience it to a greater degree than neurotypical (non-autistic) people:
- High-functioning autistic children display more emotion than typical children in response to empathy-inducing scenes.
- The faces of autistic adults demonstrate heightened electromyographic responsiveness to expressions of fear and happiness on the faces of other people.
- When looking at images of people suffering distress, autistic children have normal electrodermal responses.
- Adults with Asperger’s syndrome suffer personal distress in response to the suffering of others.
- Those who work with, live with, and care for individuals on the autistic spectrum report that they are exceptionally sensitive to other people’s emotions.
Evidence suggests that the amygdala (a brain structure critical to emotional response) may be over-responsive in those with ASDs (Dalton et al., 2005). Many people who work with autistic individuals or have family members with ASDs have noted that they tend to be extremely intuitive regarding the emotional states of others, even when others try to mask their emotions (Smith, 2009).
Numerous studies indicate that rather than lacking empathy, those with ASD are overwhelmed by it. For example, adults with Asperger’s syndrome scored similarly to neurotypical control subjects on an empathy questionnaire; the only difference was that those with Asperger syndrome actually scored much higher on measures of personal distress (Rogers et al., 2007).
Why Many Believe That People with Autistic Spectrum Disorders Lack Empathy
The erroneous belief that people on the autistic spectrum lack empathy arose from traditional autism theories positing that those with autism lack a theory of mind, or that autism is an extreme form of the less empathic “male brain.” The lack-of-empathy assumption was propped up by those with ASD achieving relatively low scores on certain empathy tests, avoiding social interaction, and making blunt statements that hurt the feelings of other people.
However, rather than having an empathy deficit, those with ASDs may learn to suppress or avoid their empathic responses as a means of self-protection (Caldwell, 2006). This may lead to theirtests of empathy in certain studies and even coming to believe that they lack emotional empathy (Smith, 2009).
As for insensitive statements or actions, these often stem from an inability to predict the impact such statements or actions will have on others, rather than cold-hearted indifference and a desire to be cruel. People on the autistic spectrum may inadvertently hurt the feelings of others because they lack the social understanding to anticipate how the other person may feel about what is said to them. People with ASD are often sorry to discover that they have inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings (Smith, 2009), which indicates that no harm was intended.
Autistic Spectrum Disorders and Social Avoidance
The world of those with ASDs is one of heightened senses and emotions where everything is intensified, both joy and suffering. People on the autistic spectrum have difficulty identifying and regulating their emotions, so they often avoid distressed individuals to prevent this emotional over-arousal. In other words, the empathy response is so strong that the individual with ASD may be too traumatized or confused to offer comfort or support in an emotional crisis.
Makram et al. (2007) have suggested that those with ASDs socially withdraw, behave inappropriately, or obsessively attend to details in emotionally charged situations to protect themselves against extreme emotional arousal. Avoiding eye contact or looking at faces altogether is one of the strategies those with ASD use to minimize their empathic response (Smith, 2009). Overwhelmed with emotion, the person with ASD may simply walk away from someone who is upset as a form of self-defense, and thus appear to be cold and uncaring. However, some people with ASDs, particularly if they’re at the high-functioning end of the continuum, are able to manage their feelings of emotional overload sufficiently so that they can provide comfort or support to a friend or family member in need.
Numerous anecdotal reports from those on the spectrum suggest that people with ASD have difficulty separating their feelings from those of others. They pick up and reflect the emotions of others like sponges, so if those around them are expressing (or attempting to suppress) negative emotions, the person with ASD will be more likely to express negativity. Therefore, it’s extremely important that those who live and work with people on the autistic spectrum cultivate positive emotional states whenever possible.
For more articles on autistic spectrum disorders, visit the Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome page.
- Caldwell, P. (2006). Finding You Finding Me: Using Intensive Interaction to Get in Touch With People Whose Severe Learning Disabilities Are Combined With Autistic Spectrum Disorder. London, UK: Jessica Kingsley.
- Dalton, K.M.; Nacewicz, B.M.; Johnstone, T.; Schaefer, H.S.; Gernsbacher, M.A.; Goldsmith, H.H.; Alexander, A.L.; Davidson, R.J. (2005). “Gaze Fixation and the Neural Circuitry of Face Processing in Autism.” Nature Neuroscience, 8(4), 519–526.
- Rogers, K.; Dziobek, I.; Hassenstab, J.; Wolf, O.T.; & Convit, A. (2007). “Who Cares? Revisiting Empathy in Asperger Syndrome.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37, 709–715.
- Smith, A. (2009). “The Empathy Imbalance Hypothesis of Autism: A Theoretical Approach to Cognitive and Emotional Empathy in Autistic Development.” Psychological Record, 59(3), 489-510.